A review by tinyjude
Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

dark emotional hopeful reflective sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


Set in 19th century England, we follow the story of Robin and his cohort (Ramy, Victorie and Letty) in the highly renowed instituion of Bable. Through the lens of these characters we see them grow and suffer the effects of dark academia in all its senses. The way in which grades, work, obsession can hurt physically and mentally the students. The competitive atmosphere... But also, how deeply rooted colonialism is in every aspect of academia.

Thus, the novel explores and discusses topics such as systemic racism, colorism, slavery, colonialism and the ways in which the latter works to increase the power of the Empire. These are characters who have been extracted from their homelands and treated as assets (Robin-Canton, Ramy-Calcutta, Victoire-Haiti; Letty is the only white British woman in their group). They are the language they speak because that is valuable for the Crown, but they are nothing more than devices, another instance of colonizers exploiting colonized people and taking away their languages, culture, etc...

Some reviews complain about timelines (the author stated at the beginning that it was a piece of fiction and some changes were made to accomodate the plot) and the use of anacronisms like "whiteness" as we understand it today, but I like them. After all, this text speaks to a modern audience, us, and even though at that time they didn't have a word for this thing, now that we do, we should use it.

The novel reads in some parts much like an academic paper, as it deals in depth with etymology, linguistics, history, a little bit of literature, philosophy and politics. So, as a language nerd who could recognize from my degree studies and further research, many of the authors, concepts, explanations and dilemmas discussed, I was elated. Like a cat smelling catnip or their favourite treat. Nevertheless, that didn't make it a dense book for me, in fact, it just sparkled my interest in languages even more.

Other people feel like it was a bit too-much-on-your-nose or handholding the reader through the book. They argue that it feels patronizing, as if we wouldn't be able to recognize the problems, the racist comments they receive, without the characters pointing it out. For people well versed in these topics and who have lived through all of these experiences, it's normal to think it was too much. Nonetheless, I think it was still useful, it will be useful for people who are starting to deconstructe themselves. Furthermore, I kind of love how she hammered into every paragraph thousands of critiques, moral dilemmas about justice, rightness, exploitatin, betrayal, belonging, grief, privilege, class, race and gender differences. Because I love angry characters full of spite and vengeful thoughts. As with Rin in The Poppy Wars, I was all in with Robin and the necessity of violence to occur for an Empire or an entire system to fall. And I am also fond of lots of descriptions :D

Moreover, the intricate relationship between translation and betrayal, translation and commodification, translation and colonization, translation and identity... It was exquisite and a very beautiful defense on why preserving every single language in the world is such an important task, as it is not just about the language, but also, culture, history, identity, a whole world behind that cannot be replaced or reconstructed. A richness that must be preserved.

Finally, Victorie, my love. You are so strong and one of my favourite characters. Ramy, you were the best of them all, since your first appearance I knew you would be my favourite. Robin, oh Robin and his constant dilemmas, feeling as if he was living two lives, as if he was never complete. I loved his character development. And Letty... Fuck you!
Spoiler I knew she wouldn't get it (and I say this being a white person) and I wanted to punch her so bad. She was so disrespecftul, racist, classist, self-centered, selfish, self-victimicizing, arrogant, ignorant... She could have listened, but she didn't want to see the truth because it was ugly and it proved she was part of the problem. She was a coward and a terrible friend. She never loved them as they loved her. She never made the effort to go beyond her prejudices, she never put herself on their shoes. She enraged me so much. AND SHE FUCKING KILLED RAMY IN COLD BLOOD, HER SUPPOSED FRIEND ON WHOM SHE HAD A CRUSH ON, JUST BECAUSE HE REJECTED HER AND IT HURT HER WHITE EGO ???? JAIL TIME, GO TO HELL
And she represents so many white people who turn a blind eye to these kind of situations, because it doesn't affect them, because it is inconvenient, shows the venom in the system, and because it shows their lack of compromise, love, morality and humanity in regards to others. In contrast, that teacher (I think Mrs Craft) at the end proved to be at least decent among the white characters.

Final thought, did anyone else read some intense feelings between Robin and Ramy or was it just me? Romantic or really really platonic that go beyond their friendship in the group, like soulmates kinda.
Spoiler specially given Robin's reaction and fixation on Ramy's death among all of the Hermes Society's members and his memory of him on that first day before Robin dies, which is so idyllic and queer coded in my opinion

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